Unsinkable Jews: Ep. 6
Confederate Jews aren’t a good look these days, if they ever were. But they’re harder to get rid of than you might expect—whether in the 19th century or the 21st.
The Jewish community of Charlotte, North Carolina, has been embarrassed by their city’s monument honoring Judah Benjamin, the Confederacy’s Jewish secretary of state, ever since they were cajoled into paying for it back in 1948 … and the 2020 racial justice protests finally accelerated their decadeslong attempt to get rid of it. But Benjamin—a brilliant lawyer, one of the first Jewish senators, a Supreme Court nominee, the “Brains of the Confederacy,” Caribbean-born, openly Jewish, and not openly gay—made people uncomfortable during his own lifetime. Even back then, he was impossible to get rid of.
Benjamin’s meteoric career, and his outlandish escape from a victorious Union that wanted his head (he survived multiple shipwrecks and was helped along by a talking parrot), present a strange study in the evils of the past and the awkward role Jews played in it, especially when we look at other unlikely Jewish Civil War figures and the expectations non-Jewish leaders like Lincoln and Davis had of them. How did Jews position themselves as Americans, then and now—and at what cost?
James Traub’s new biography of Judah Benjamin is Judah Benjamin: Counselor to the Confederacy. Previous Benjamin biographies include Judah P. Benjamin: The Jewish Confederate by Eli Evans, which provides the account shared in this episode of Benjamin’s astonishing escape. Jonathan Sarna’s works on the Civil War include Lincoln and the Jews, which features Sarna’s research on Isachar Zacharie, and When General Grant Expelled the Jews. Asher Knight is the senior rabbi of Temple Beth El in Charlotte, North Carolina. Eric Wisnia is the rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Chaim in Princeton Junction, New Jersey.
A fictionalized account of Judah Benjamin’s life and the lives of other Civil War Jews can be found in Dara Horn’s novel All Other Nights.
Dara Horn’s new book, People Love Dead Jews, is published by W.W. Norton and is available wherever books are sold. It’s also available as an audio book from Recorded Books. We hope you’ll check it out.
Adventures with Dead Jews is brought to you by Tablet Studios and Soul Shop. It’s created and written by Dara Horn, and produced and edited by Josh Kross and Robert Scaramuccia. The managing producer is Sara Fredman Aeder, and the executive producers are Liel Leibovitz, Stephanie Butnick, Gabi Weinberg and Dan Luxenberg. We hope you’ll rate and review it wherever you get your podcasts, so that more people can join us on our adventures.
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- Adventures with Dead JewsWhy Do People Love Dead Jews?Anne Frank, public radio, and other exercises in public empathy September 2, 2021
- Adventures with Dead JewsTablet Studios and SoulShop present: Adventures with Dead JewsComing soon: Adventures with Dead Jews with Dara HornAugust 20, 2021